Dear Aunt Debbie,
Since finishing up my grading and saying goodbye to another school year, I've found myself craving YA lit as an entry into summer. I'll get to some of my bigger must-reads in later weeks; for now, give me a good page-turner (or two, or three, or four).
Gregor the Overlander, book #1 in Suzanne Collins' five-book series, The Underland Chronicles. I knew Collins only from The Hunger Games, her best-known series, about which you and I have both raved here. It's no surprise that this earlier series is both gripping and filled with compelling characters.
The series skews a little younger than The Hunger Games. Our hero, Gregor, is an 11-year-old boy living close to poverty in an apartment building in New York with his mother and two younger sisters, Lizzie (7), and Boots (2), and grandmother. Their father, an engaging and involved parent and excellent science teacher, disappeared without a trace two years before the beginning of the first book -- homage to A Wrinkle in Time? Gregor and Boots are down in the laundry room one day when they fall into an open grate, are caught by misty currents, and land impossibly far down below New York City in Underland.
It turns out there's a whole world down there, populated by very pale humans, descendants of a British explorer from centuries earlier, and giant talking bats (friendly, bonded with humans), cockroaches (keep to themselves) and rats (bad, at war with the humans). Bartholomew of Sandwich, the original settler, was also a prophet of sorts. In Regalia, the gorgeous stone-carved capital city of the humans, he left a room filled with prophecies carved into the walls. Soon after Gregor's arrival, the people of Regalia decide that Gregor is "the warrior" mentioned in a number of prophecies, and he and Boots embark on a quest to find and save their father, and possibly all of Underland.
It's a fine exploration of the "Who, me? I'm no hero. Okay, well, maybe I am" theme. Gregor is appealing as he tries to resist the prophecies but starts to realize he might actually be something special, and Boots, the two-year-old, is a hoot. She's totally fearless, and bonds immediately with the giant cockroaches, who revere her as a princess. Speaking of princesses, one of the other major characters is Luxa, the underage queen of Regalia. She's strong and at first quite cool -- her parents were killed by rats, and she's in training to take on the full powers of the throne when she turns 16. She and Gregor don't like each other at first, but come to have a grudging respect, which develops into real caring as the series goes on. (As of early in book 3, no romance yet. They're only 11.) There are many adventures and hairsbreadth escapes -- Collins is a master of the cliffhanger chapter ending -- and semi-major characters die in the fighting. It's a good read.
After finishing Gregor the Overlander in a day, I quickly updated my library hold list to request the second and third books in the series: Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane and Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods. While I waited for them to come in, I took a more realistic turn with a book you'd recommended a while back, Will Grayson, Will Grayson. The alternating chapters by John Green (The Fault in Our Stars) and David Levithan (Boy Meets Boy) worked together well, and I found myself speeding through it with great enjoyment.
I like summer.